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Two Kinds of Language

Roy Brabant-Smith, Middle Way (Volume 68:3 p. 123) November 1993

(Based on the teachings of Buddhadasa, who died recently)

We often find that when listening to religious talks we have difficulty in understanding them. Why is this? The reason is that there are two kinds of language, the language of the ordinary person with no knowledge of the Dhamma and the Dhamma language which is the language of those who have gained a deep insight into the Truth.

Because some people have experienced the Truth they speak in Dhamma language, which can be quite incomprehensible to the person who only understands ordinary everyday language, even though the words used may be the same.

Ordinary language tends to deal with physical things and experiences, as understood by ordinary man; whereas Dhamma language deals with the mental world, with the intangible non-physical world. So it is only those who are familiar with this world who can speak Dhamma language; the language of the subjective inner world as opposed to the objective world of matter and objects.

This means that the same word or phrase can have a completely different meaning depending whether one interprets it in ordinary or Dhamma language.

Let us consider some examples of what I mean. Let us take the word 'Buddha'. In everyday language it is the historical being who lived in India two thousand years ago.

However the Buddha in Dhamma language refers to the Truth the historical Buddha realised and taught: Dhamma itself. The Buddha said "He who sees the Dhamma sees the Enlightened One; he who sees the Enlightened One, sees the Dhamma. One who sees not the Dhamma, though he grasps at the robe of the Enlightened One, cannot be said to have seen the Enlightened One". So in Dhamma language the Buddha is the same as the Truth and so anyone who has seen the Truth can be said to have seen the Buddha. To see just the physical body of the Buddha would not be to see the Buddha at all, and would bring no benefit.

Again the Buddha said "The Dhamma and the Vinaya (discipline) which I have proclaimed, have demonstrated, these shall be your Teacher when I have passed away." So the real Buddha has not passed away and has not ceased to exist. What ceased to exist was the physical body, the outer shell. The real Teacher, that is the Dhamma-Vinaya is still with us. This is the meaning of the word 'Buddha' in Dhamma language.

The 'Buddha' of everyday language is the physical man; the Buddha of Dhamma language is the "Dhamma" itself, which made him the Buddha.

Now let us consider the word 'Dhamma'. At the lowest level of everyday language it is the books containing the Scriptures, the Dhamma in the bookcase or it may refer to talks on the Teaching. This is the meaning of 'Dhamma' in everyday language, the language of deluded people who have not yet seen the Dhamma.

In terms of Dhamma language 'Dhamma' means the same as the Enlightened One: "Who sees the Dhamma sees the Enlightened One."

In the original Pali language Dhamma was used to contain all those things which we call Nature. The word Dhamma embraces:-

  1. Nature itself.
  2. The laws of Nature.
  3. Man's duties to act in accordance with the Laws of Nature.
  4. The benefits to be derived from this acting in accordance with the Laws of Nature.

This gives some idea of the wide range covered by the word 'Dhamma'.

Now let us consider the word 'Sangha'. The word Sangha in everyday language is the monk in his yellow robe. The Sangha in Dhamma language refers to the high qualities of whatever kind exist in the Monk or man of virtue. The Sangha proper consists of the following four kinds of person; the Stream Enterer, the Once-Returner, the Non-retumer and the fully perfected man or Arahant. These terms again refer to the mental, rather than the physical qualities.

Let us now consider the term 'Religion'. Religion in everyday language means monasteries, buildings, monks and at the highest level the Teaching. In Dhamma language it means the life of renunciation, glorious in its beginning, its middle and its end.

. Let us consider the word 'Work'. In everyday language it means going out to earn a living, or working on our car or in the garden. In Dhamma language it means putting the Teaching into practice or the purposeful effort to give up mental defilements.

What about the word 'Nibbana'? In everyday terms people think of it as a city or place very often full of all sorts of good things where every wish is fulfilled and everything we want is immediately available.

In Dhamma language it refers to the complete and absolute extinction of every kind of defilement or unnecessary condition. Whenever this occurs, then there is Nibbana. If all defilements have been eradicated completely, it is permanent Nibbana.

In every day language 'Mara' is some monster or demon who sets out to destroy us. In Dhamma language Mara is not a being but rather an unwholesome mental state opposed to a good and wholesome mental state. It is therefore a state opposed to progress towards the cessation of unsatisfactory conditions. At the worst it means the highest level of sensuality. Nevertheless Mara can be said to be a very powerful force indeed and is therefore given the name of a god.

Now the word 'World'. In ordinary language it refers to the round earth. In Dhamma language it refers to worldly mental states - unsatisfactory conditions. The condition that is impermanent, changing and unsatisfactory, is the worldly condition of mind.

When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths he sometimes used the word 'world' and sometimes the word 'unsatisfactory conditions' (Dukkha). They are one and the same. For instance he spoke of

What he meant was: -

  • The unsatisfactory condition.
  • The cause of the unsatisfactory condition.
  • The extinction of the unsatisfactory condition.
  • The method that brings about the extinction of the unsatisfactory condition.
  • So in the language of Dhamma the word 'world' and 'unsatisfactory condition are one and the same thing. Here the word world is something low or lacking in depth.

    Let us go a little further, to the word 'Birth'. In everyday language it is coming into the world. Physically birth only happens to each of us once. This birth from our mother's womb is what is meant by birth in everyday language.

    In Dhamma language the word 'birth' refers to the rebirth of the idea of 'I and me' any time that it arises in the mind from day to day. In this sense the ordinary person is born very often, time and time again; a more developed person is born less frequently; a person well advanced is born less frequently still and ultimately ceases to be reborn at all. The person is then fully enlightened, an Arahant, a Buddha.

    Each arising of 'I and me' in any form is called a birth. An Enlightened person or a Buddha is one in whom the sense of 'I and me' no longer arises.

    So birth can take place many times in a single day. As soon as someone starts thinking like an animal, he is born mentally at that moment as an animal, or a human being or a celestial being. So the word 'birth' in Dhamma language means the arising of 'I and me' and not as in everyday language the physical birth from the mother's womb.

    Death in ordinary language is the event which leads to us being buried. In Dhamma language it is the cessation of the idea of 'I and me'.

    Let us consider the word 'God'. In everyday language we use the word to refer to some celestial being with creative powers who created man, the world, the universe and so on.

    In Dhamma language it is something very much deeper. It is a profound hidden power, neither celestial, nor human, nor any other kind of being. It is the very essence of Nature itself and is intangible. What we call the Laws of Nature are what are responsible for the creation, existence and destruction of all things.

    So in Dhamma language the word 'God' means amongst other things 'the laws of nature' or what we call 'Dhamma'. So Dhamma is the Buddhist equivalent of God.

    We know how the various worlds are depicted in the Tibetan Wheel of Life. Here we are talking in conventional terms in ordinary language. Let us now consider them in terms of Dhamma language.

    Hell is anxiety. Anyone who is overcome and is on fire with anxiety, falls into hell at that moment and depending on the type of anxiety we can see the type of hell into which he falls. We are born into the world of beasts if we are dumb or stupid, deliberately or otherwise. This can happen many times in a day, particularly when we act compulsively without freedom of choice.

    The hungry ghosts in Dhamma language are purely mental states; ambition based on craving, worry based on craving. Anyone suffering from intense craving or pathological thirst, or who worries or frets unnecessarily, has the same symptoms as the hungry ghost.

    Now let us consider the Asuras or the fighting demons.

    In Dhamma language it is being excessively fearful without good cause; being afraid of harmless creatures, of thunder and lightning, of speaking in public, being afraid of Nibbana because we feel that life would be dull and meaningless and so on. This is to be born as an Asura.

    These are the four woeful states which when looked at in Dhamma language are very different from our understanding of them in ordinary language.

    So let us look at ourselves from time to time and see which of these realms we inhabit for most of the time. Is it the hell of anxiety? The stupidity and dumb refusal to accept what is obvious of the animals, the unfulfilled cravings of the Pretas, or the fears of the Asuras? Look at yourselves with the mirror of insight and see yourselves as you really are.

    In ordinary language we see heaven and hell as being after death, but in Dhamma language we can see that these states are with us all the time.

    'Heaven' in ordinary language is some wonderful celestial realm where one goes if one does good deeds or makes merit. In Dhamma language Heaven refers first of all to infatuated bliss of the highest order.

    This is the lower level, the heaven of sensuality. Higher is the heaven free from sensuality which exists in a state of mental well being free from any disturbing object of sensuality. One reaches this level when one becomes fed up with, satiated or freed from sense objects. One then only wants to remain quite empty, still and untouched.

    The lower levels are full of sensuality whereas the higher levels are devoid of sensuality although the idea of 'Self and I' are still present.

    Sometimes we hear such exotic terms as ambrosia, a drink which it is alleged is drunk by celestial beings to make them immortal. In Dhamma language this is Truth at the highest level, the Truth of non-selfhood or Sunnata. This makes man immortal because when we are free from the idea of 'I' or 'self' how can there be death?

    Having mentioned Sunnata or emptiness what do we really mean? In ordinary language it means emptiness, the absence of any content whatsoever, a void, a vacuum.

    In Dhamma language everything of every kind and variety, both physical and mental, is there in quantity with the single exception of 'Me and Mine'. This is the emptiness understood in Dhamma language, the language of the Buddha. The word empty means being empty of 'Self' and of belonging to 'Self'," Foolish people using everyday language translate it as 'There is No Self' or that 'all things are devoid of Self' or that nothing really exists or that the world and all Dhammas are empty and void. If the term emptiness is translated like this then the Buddha's teaching of emptiness becomes meaningless. Uninformed people, particularly in the West, who hold forth on Annata and Rebirth and emptiness, come out with some very odd statements which have nothing to do with the Emptiness taught by the Buddha.

    'Light' in everyday language means a candle or light by which we can be guided. In Dhamma language it refers to Panna, insight, or higher knowledge; so that even in the darkest cave or the most unpleasant situation there can still exist the light of wisdom.

    Darkness means the absence of light, but it also means lack of insight, ignorance of Truth and spiritual blindness.

    Now a very well known Buddhist term 'Karma': people often think of it as bad luck or say that you suffer because of your bad Karma; but in Dhamma terms it means more than that.

    There are three kinds of Karma; black, or bad Karma, white or good Karma and a third which is neither black nor white but acts to neutralise the other two because it is devoid of 'self'.

    People in the West tend to get interested in good and bad Karma but they don't understand the third type which puts an end to all types of Karma, both good and bad and leads to Nibbana. This is by applying the Buddha's teaching of the Eightfold Path.

    We now come to the term 'Refuge'. The Buddha said "Be islands unto yourselves, seek no external refuge". This can make us seem to be very selfish and 'self' centred. We normally like some kind of refuge - parents, good luck charms, or the security of our own group or kind.

    The refuge of the Dhamma is to be found within. When we talk about going to the refuge of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and Sangha these are to be found within ourselves; within our own minds.

    What do we mean by 'The essence of the Buddha's Teaching'? Often people will refer to the Tipitaka which consists of the rules of Vinaya, the Suttas and the Abhidhamma but in Dhamma language as the Buddha put it: "Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as Me and Mine." This then is the essence of Buddhism in Dhamma language.

    It does not however mean as some people tend to suggest that we should not study the Scriptures. All that then happens is that people misquote the Kalama Suttas o as to avoid doing any work and suggest that the whole of the Buddha's Teaching can be thrown away and that one gains Enlightenment only from one's own experience.

    They then tend to take refuge in the 'I' and the 'Self' in explaining and expounding their own interpretation of the Buddha's Teaching. The result is the development of the most colossal Egos with all the inherent defilements of pride, conceit, and arrogance. This is certainly the very antithesis of the Buddha's Teaching. As a Bhikkhu who arrived in the West recently said: "In the West you are all very intellectual. You talk about Karma and Rebirth, Annata and Nibbana and you can quote the Abhidhamma. The only trouble is that you do not put the theory that you have learnt into practice."

    This is one reason why in the West we can see all the distortions, new cults and misrepresentations that have arisen from our 'understanding' and 'interpretation' of the Buddha's Teaching.

    So we can see how a single word can have at least two meanings depending whether one interprets it in everyday or Dhamma language.

    A saying which is sometimes quoted which people do not understand and which may make Buddhism sound rather inhuman is: "Be ungrateful, kill the 'father', kill the 'mother' and you will attain Nibbana."

    But here we are not considering our physical Father or physical Mother who gave us birth. What we are considering is what has caused us to become what we are. So here 'Father' means 'lack of insight' and 'Mother' means 'craving'. So to reach Nibbana they have to be destroyed and got rid of completely. Our Father, the person responsible for our birth is 'lack of insight' and our 'Mother', responsible for our birth is 'craving'. So in Dhamma language the parents' have to be destroyed completely before Nibbana can be obtained.

    In conclusion let us consider how a better realisation of existence of the two kinds of language can bring a better understanding to all mankind. A religious man of any religion should be able to understand this importance.

    It is the ordinary man, who interprets the Dhamma in ordinary language, who causes all the misunderstandings, conflicts, wars, and intolerance. For those who know and understand the language of Dhamma there is no conflict.

    So let us finally consider what is the real liberation or salvation which is the ultimate goal of every life.

    The Christian says: "Seek ye the Kingdom of Heaven."

    The Hindu says: "Be one with the Great Soul."

    The Buddhist says: "Realise Nibbana."

    The greeting of Islam is the one word Salaam, meaning Peace and is an excellent expression of the ideal life.

    These four answers which are in Dhamma language, while differing in the actual words used are equally the ideal or ultimate goal for any living Being.

    So don't leave the realisation or attainment of the goal of life, which is genuine for all and unchanged, for the next life or until you have died. This is such a terrible waste.

    May you gain Insight into the Truth in this very life, while you are still breathing and realise the ultimate goal of life whatever you like to call it, which remains permanent and unchanging at all times.

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